Tuesday, May 31, 2011

DSK as Post-Colonial History

An interesting take on the DSK story:

In the scandalous case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French IMF chief currently held in New York facing attempted rape charges, the powerful issues of race and gender easily overwhelm one curious geopolitical detail: what's a woman from a French-speaking, former French colony in West Africa doing in the U.S. in the first place? In this case, she is from Guinea, but she could just as likely be from Senegal, Cameroon, Rwanda, Gabon, or Benin -- all Francophone countries that once sent their most ambitious immigrants almost exclusively to France. Now these and other French-speaking African countries experience a steady outflow people to the U.S. 
The presence of a growing number of French-speaking Africans reflects a monumental shift in the relationship of sub-Saharan Africa to France and to the U.S. The shift has been years in the making, and its still-unfolding consequences are dimly appreciated.
...
The pragmatism and openness of American capital differs sharply from France's more closed, status-oriented managerial culture. About the time that France experienced a wave of protests by African immigrants in 2005, I met with a group of university-educated black Africans living and working in Paris. All of them uniformly complained about racial bias and about limits on the potential of even highly talented to immigrants to advance up French corporate ladders. They showed little gratitude for the government of France having paid for their university educations, a practice meant to bind elites from Africa to French society. The contrast with America's embrace of talented immigrants -- and racial equality -- was impossible to ignore. In a 2009 study of Francophone Africans, Whitney R. Henderson of Providence College found similar reasons for their choice of the U.S. over France.  

12 comments:

Jeremy Kargon said...

My US-based African acquaintances (who tend to be anglophone in the first place, however) have tended to confirm the characterizations drawn in this piece. Obviously, they chose to come to the US and not Europe, including France, and so their attitudes obviously include some self-justification...

One sentence, however, caught my eye: "They showed little gratitude for the government of France having paid for their university education." If that's true (and, like all generalizations, that may be a big "if"), how much does their attitude have to do with perceptions of barriers, biases, etc, and how much with their tacit participation in the "culture of complaint" apparent among the French middle class of all backgrounds?

(Apparent, at least, to casual readers in translation like myself, with a French wife but living here in the US...)

My point: Might disaffection be a sign of absorption within, rather than alienation from, mainstream French society? Naturally, this question relates only to immigrants to France, not folks still in Africa...

Tacitus said...

My friends and acquaintances from Africa, the Maghreb and Africa here in Montreal have often expressed similar feelings about preferring Canada to France. The difference with the U.S. obviously being that they can live in a primarily francophone rather than anglophone environment.

Anonymous said...

Another round of back-patting, please. With a cherry on top ... you know, to make up for all of our insecurities.

MYOS said...

I read a similar articles in Médiapart last summer: the children of the middle class and of the elite, even those attending well-regarded francophone schools, scoffed at the thought they may enroll in French universities; they cited, first and foremost, humiliation at the hand of French Embassy personnel, but also post-graduation perspectives and the general state of French universities.

As for the Africans the journalist met who didn't feel grateful for their "free education": hard to be grateful if you attended a horribly overcrowded, poorly funded school, then were only offered janitorial positions even with good degrees.
Je suis noir et je n'aime pas le manioc, by Gaston Kelman, was quite an eye-opener for me. While I'm sure some of it was exaggerated to prove a point, I'd encountered enough second-hand stories that corroborated what he said, that it was impossible to dismiss the tome; it was reminiscent of stuff you learn in school about the 60s and 70s in the North of the US, and wildly different from 21st century so-called "racist" America.

nathanielpowell said...

I'm going to try to cross post this on the facebook group, but the 1000 character limit makes it difficult to write substantial posts!

I find this interesting on a few levels. First, the headline is obviously a bit exaggerated, and I'd like to see more substantial statistics pointing to a strong shift in "cultural preference" to the US among Africans from francophone countries. France and francophone-centric education still has a strong influence in many of these countries, and in some respects, like education, my impression is that it's actually growing. That being said, to some extent this shift, however small, will only serve to feed French paranoia about its position in Africa. The fear of American, or more broadly "Anglo-Saxon" influence has had a very bizarre effect on French relations with its former colonial African states since the "independences" in the early 60s. De Gaulle (and particularly his African affairs advisor, Foccart), saw the Americans as the biggest threat to French influence. This paranoia reached the point where Foccart really saw the Americans behind every bush and tree, and the main instigator behind every kind of political machination which aimed to reduce French influence in various countries. Although evidence today suggests that no plots of these kind existed---the Americans were actually quite content with French influence in their former colonies as a "stabilizing" factor during the Cold War-- this kind of thinking has persisted, with a brief exception during some of the Giscard years, until the present. The most perverse example I can think of is Rwanda. It was never a French colony or possession, and there were no substantive relations between the two countries until the mid-1970s. One of the main reasons why the French gave so much support to the Rwandan regime in fighting the Tutsi RPF rebels in 1990-1994 was, unbelievably, because of their fears of an "Anglo-Saxon" plot (the rebels came from Anglophone Uganda), to destabilize "their" "pré-carré." This support contributed, in some respects, to the genocide which followed. This paranoia even persists in serious scholarly literature, not to mention sensationalist journalism, on recent African conflicts in the DRC and elsewhere.
In any event, as recent events in Libya and Côte d'Ivoire have shown, France is far from "losing" Africa to the Americans. Or to put it another way, the Africans are far from rid of the French, for better or for worse.

thisnameisinuse said...

It's absurdly exaggerated (what did Talleyrand say? 'All that is exaggerated is insignificant'?) but there's probably a hint of truth in it, although not necessarily for the reasons the writer thinks.

I'm South African and I'd guess that the UK holds a position for many South Africans, especially black South Africans, isn't all that different to that held by France for those from other parts of Africa, a position complicated by all sorts of post-colonial anger which the US doesn't carry (since the US was its own colony). And so although the openness of the USA may be partly the reality, it's also the perception because of the past rather than the present.

That said, none of 'the West' is all that popular and if France has lost Africa to the US (it hasn't), they've both lost Africa to China.

bernard said...

Leaving as I am next to South Africa, I would have to remind commenters that France did not support Apartheid as Thatcher and Reagan did in practice, nor did it ever try to institute anything like apartheid in post-colonial Africa. Many things have been, are and will be wrong in France's behaviour with former colonies, but let us keep some sense of realism here. Goodwin's law isn't far.

As for the substance of the debate, it is clear that the US are an immigration country to this day and that thanks to the civil rights movement and aftermath, all races are equally respected nowadays. Whereas France was an immigration country in times past and has gradually evolved into a country that rejects immigrants, not least over the past ten years thanks to unprincipled and loathsome policies put in place. That said, deep down in society in opposition to opportunistic politicians, there may well be more embrace than suggested by this article, not least among younger people who do not seem to have any problems with cross-ethnic dating. And that, usually, is quite a telling fact.

meshplate said...

My 2 cents, people of African origins are fewer in number in Paris than in New York - I have no idea of the percentages. Compared to the big apple, Paris feels pretty much like a white town. In parallel to those French women who found their way to high places, a few with African origins have made it to the top, but they are as they say the exceptions that prove the rule. Is a French Obama a realistic possibility in the near future?

Anonymous said...

Do a totally unscientific study and enter any French business, or office of French embassy or consulate or Alliance Francaise, etc and what do you see? 95% of the employees are pure white. Maybe 5% can be called somewhat ethnic / colored, and that includes people of Arab / VietNamese origin. Mostly secretaries and short term contracts. Colored Consuls, Ambassadors, Counsellors? Almost never. The higher up the ladder you go in French government / civil service, the fewer people of color / ethnics. Sure there are a few high political appointees to display diversity but overall "official France" is blindingly white. The hypocritical French laws which supposedly guarantee equality by making it illegal to record ethnic origin / race (as if employers couldn't guess race by names, addresses, and a glance at the candidate) are a huge cynical fraud which protect every sort of racism and discrimination. You can't amend a problem you can't measure.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget, Anonymous, that there were almost no Africans in France before the 1950s / 1960s and that it is often very difficult to tell who is of Maghrebi origin before you hear there name.

I well remember the first time I saw an African, when I was around 6 years old - my father called us and told us something like "I have a friend from Congo coming for dinner, he is very dark skinned, but you mustn't stare or remark on his colour".

Mélanie

thisnameisinuse said...

Mélanie,

Yes, I think that's often forgotten when comparing racial problems in France (or elsewhere in Europe) with those in the USA (or elsewhere in the Americas). The situation in the USA or Brazil is the result of centuries of development; the situation in France or the UK is the result of decades.

Tacitus said...

I think you raised a very good point with regard to China. While maybe not a cultural or linguistic influence, they are increasingly an economic power in Africa. I've actually met French teachers in China who give lessons to business executives because of their economic interests in African mines and oil, for example.